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Taking the Bull by the Horns

Monty, the bull -- and the man with the red suspenders.

Monty Doiel had his first inkling of trouble as he turned right at the end of Mercaderes Street onto Estafeta. The corner is hard and angular, difficult under the best of circumstances. Doiel had hoped his new black Nike Air ACG cross-trainers with the reverse-tread grip would provide an advantage on the cobblestones, but instead it was like running on a slick gym floor. He took the turn a little wide.

Most people familiar with the Encierro agree that swinging wide onto Estafeta from Mercaderes is a pretty bad place for a person to be. Even though the stone streets have been chipped away at over the years to provide the bulls with better footing, the beasts can slip, too, and they often careen left into the barriers that line the course there. There have been ugly collisions.

Monty remembers that the bulls had separated fairly quickly after being released from the corrales onto the 300-yard-long, slightly uphill-sloping street called Santo Domingo. He had waited in front of City Hall, zigzagging deliberately back and forth across the street after hearing the starting rocket fired, marking time until the bulls made their way down the narrow passage. When he saw the first bull, just past Ayuntamiento Square, he began to run in earnest. Even with a good head start, though, a man is in no way faster than a bull, and the first animal rushed by Monty's left.

There is a secret to running with the bulls: If you really want to run with the animals and not just say you did -- wait for one to pass by and then slip in behind and slap at its rear, timidly brush the danger with your fingertips and not face it down like a man -- then you must actively seek out your bull. The two of you must acknowledge and engage each other. But the odds are against this. Typically, six bulls are released each of the seven days of the Fiesta of San Fermín, held in Pamplona, Spain, each July. Although several steers are also released into the street to help control the bulls, they are non-entities, a meaningless entourage to the talent. As Monty puts it, "Cutting across a cow pasture was never a big deal to me."

So it was as he was bending right, too high against the barrier, that Monty first glimpsed the second animal -- his bull. Actually, it's not entirely accurate to say that Monty spotted the bull. It was more a sense that the beast was there, waiting for Monty to acknowledge him. "In my peripheral vision, I can see the second bull," he recalls. "And I know he's my bull -- that's who I'm gonna run with. And at the same time, I also know he knows I'm his runner. He had spotted me, and I was who he was after. Plus the black helped."

You must understand that, for better or for worse, this is exactly what Monty wanted: the undivided attention of 1,500 pounds of charging, angry muscle and sinew. He'd even dressed to promote the confrontation. Pamplona bull runners usually wear a traditional outfit: crisp white pants and billowy shirts, with a brilliant red sash tied rakishly about the waist. Monty had even worn that unofficial uniform the day before, but thanks to confusion over the starting line, he'd missed the festival's first day of the running.

"So the second day, I changed into all black," he says. "For one, I hate wearing dirty clothes, and the whites were dirty. But I also thought, 'Hey, why not wear something that will get you noticed? I'm here to run, after all...'" It worked. And so at that moment, the instant when the two animals, Monty and the bull, connected on a very basic, primal level and agreed to stay with each other until this thing was over, Monty was content. "I knew that him and me were going to go for it," he says.

Yet as he skidded around the hard right, regained his footing and began the long, 480-yard straightaway toward the gentle left that begins in front of the Telefonica building -- the telephone exchange -- Monty's plan began to quickly break down. When you mix people and danger, you never know what behavior to expect. Monty looked ahead, down the street, and spotted...a mess. "I look forward and I see all these other runners in front of me. They had fallen down, all the way across the street," he recalls. "I had started recovering from my wide turn, began to cut across to the right, just as I had planned. And suddenly, there's I-25 in the winter spread out in front of me.

"And I can feel every bit of this guy gaining on me. There's no side mirrors, no rearview mirrors. But I can feel it. Butterflies, adrenaline. You can call it what you want. But I know it was fear. FEAR! And I was handling it, man! 'Cause you gotta understand that without fear there is no bravery!"

 


Where to begin? Even though this happened just three weeks earlier, on the far side of Monty's fortieth birthday, the notion -- the compulsion, ultimately -- started many, many years ago, deep within the family, like an heirloom you have no choice but to accept. So why not begin with Monty's father, an Irishman who would not tolerate weakness and most respected that about life which was hardest.

"Dad was a World War II hero, a member of the 101st Airborne, fought in the Battle of the Bulge," Monty begins. After the war his father became a tin man, pushing aluminum siding. Later, there would be trouble enough -- the drinking, an indictment -- but early on, Monty looked up to him, even started helping him out at age twelve, working the phones, making cold calls to potential customers, getting leads for the old man's business. He remembers complaining one day in late December -- "Nobody wants to buy siding this close to Christmas" -- and his father replying in that gravelly and disdainful voice, "Well, then, I guess Santy Claus won't be coming here this year." And so Monty turned around and headed back to the phones.

Somewhere in Europe the man had found a hero in Hemingway, maybe even saw a bit of himself in the hard-drinking author whose lonely characters never allowed hardship and pain and physical tests to pass by without swinging a shoulder into them. "He became a fanatic," Monty recalls. "He said he could respect a guy who put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger because he didn't like life."

Besides, the old man would add, "There's no good way to go." (Four years ago, at age 71, while sitting in his favorite chair, smoking a Salem and drinking a Scotch as his wife bustled about making dinner, he quietly put the lie to his own homily. "He was wrong," says Monty. "Even in death.")

The family moved around plenty at first, packing up and heading off to wherever a group of people might appreciate some maintenance-free siding on their houses, until Monty's mother put her foot down hard in central Illinois and refused to lift it again. Monty found Rockford idyllic, pleasant -- and boring as hell. So at the age of sixteen he walked away and into a world that quite literally seemed brighter. "When I was growing up, I always thought life was so depressing," he recalls. "But when I left, I discovered Rockford was just constantly overcast."

He hitchhiked to Louisiana and Florida -- managed to stay stoned the entire trip -- and joined the Navy at seventeen. "It was pretty clear by then I was never going to go to college," Monty says. He got out two years later, hooked up with a nice Rockford girl, moved to Houston, managed a cheap motel for a while and took off again. After traveling for a year, he landed in Denver, 21 years old, and, with the exception of a few long-term side trips (he even pushed tin with the old man for a time), he hasn't left since. He met his future wife at a local dance club. They married a couple of months later, produced a son a couple of years after that (named him Ernest, naturally) and divorced not long after: "I married for love, she married on a whim," he says. "It wasn't going to work."

Monty had always done risky things, stupid things. He rafted down big rivers in small inner tubes, drove fast, smoked, swallowed and drank anything he could get his hands on. He emerged nine years ago, on Ernest's sixth birthday, surprising himself that he was still alive and with a son, to boot, so he quit drinking, settled down, began earning some money, living responsibly.

The thing about living responsibly, though, is that kicks are few and far between. Pamplona had always been a goal, but the time never seemed right. "I'm going to go there someday," he'd tell his oldest friend, who'd always reply, "And when you do, I'll be there -- taking pictures of you." It was a standing joke between them, but when Monty's father died, in 1996, it suddenly seemed more serious.

Monty finally booked his ticket to Barcelona last November. Business had been going great (check out the completely restored 1974 Healy-Martin roadster and 1964 Jaguar XKE), he had a new manager who could handle the advertising sales business in his absence and, at forty years old and counting, quickly, time was no ally. Still, most reasonable people recognize these sorts of urges as symptoms of discontent or middle-age malaise, and he didn't get a lot of encouragement.

 

"I had started seeing a new doctor -- anxiety, you know, age-forty stuff -- and I told him I'd quit smoking. He said, 'That's great!' Then I told him why. He just said, 'As a doctor, I gotta tell you that's a bad idea.'"

But it was too late now. This past spring Monty started working out with pointed intent, hitting a speed bag and heavy bag in the basement. For a while, he rode a stationary bike, too, until it occurred to him late one night, "You know, I'm not going to 'bike with the bulls' or 'box with the bulls.'" He started running. At first he could barely clear his lawn before doubling over, huffing for breath. But eventually he gained strength -- the run is only 800 meters, two to three minutes tops, it's not the Olympics -- and by the time summer began, "I had plenty of jam," he says.

As the time approached, he obsessed about the festival, calling his friend, wondering about the best camera for pictures, the best location, the best strategy for the run: Should it be an insanely daring approach, like from Michener's The Drifters? Or a more classic, The Sun Also Rises kind of run? No matter what, it had to be perfect. "I'd been waiting for this all my life," Monty says.

The night before the festival's first run, while everyone else was reeling drunkenly through the streets, he soberly paced the route, mentally choreographing his dash. He missed the run the next morning -- a logistical mixup -- but Monty was just as ready on July 8.


It was as he eyed the jumble of fallen runners before him that Monty first began to contemplate the possibility of losing the duel with his bull. But he wasn't through just yet. "I'm picking a spot, looking for daylight, wondering, 'Where can I jump?'" he recalls. "And I'm thinking, 'Please, God, let me get some traction, 'cause I know I'm going to have to jump.'" It was here, as these thoughts played through his mind, that the mystery man with the red suspenders suddenly appeared to Monty's right.

Please understand that Monty would prefer not to mention the man in the red suspenders. It is not in his nature, or in his experience, to seek shelter under excuses when events turn dark. "To stay sober, you gotta live in the real world," he points out. "No excuses." Later, in the hospital, he was reluctant to even mention the man. But when the photos came back, there really was no choice.

Amid all of the chaos seething in front of him, Monty somehow saw an opening to his left, a direction the photos show him beginning to veer toward slightly. Any doubt that Monty's bull did not understand their arrangement made yards earlier was erased when the bull cut to the left, too, following Monty like a murderous, hairy trailer. The animal could not gain purchase on the cobblestones, though, and so his legs began skittering to the right. This time Monty's cross-trainers held tight. "I was in my element," he says. "I was born to do this -- or, if not born, at least raised."

Yet it was at this moment -- it is unmistakable, really, the photos are clear on this -- that the man with the red suspenders turned sharply toward Monty and buried his elbow in Monty's chest, stopping him dead, closing off his escape and pushing him back toward the charging beast. Who knows why he chose this action, or even if he chose it at all: It could just as easily have been panic as a willful deed. The result was the same, though: Monty was forced to turn his attention and energy away from the bull for a crucial instant.

Still, there could have been time. As Monty pushed the man to his right, the bull's hooves scrambled for leverage, and for an instant seemed to slide out from underneath his massive torso entirely. And so here, even with the animal's snot hot on his spine -- his nostrils could not have been more than twelve inches from Monty's back -- Monty technically had a chance. But then (and the photos show this without mistake, too) the man with the red suspenders swung his right hand into Monty's shoulder, pushing him back yet again.

By this point, of course, the bull had found his footing, regained his center. Worse, he'd suddenly gathered himself, front hooves fully off the ground, back hunched in a humped muscular coil of potential power that could only lunge forward. The photo of this particular moment, when the full kinetic energy of the bull is being channeled through his right horn and into Monty's left buttock, also shows Monty mouthing a word. It is "motherfucker."

 

"It wasn't the pain that impressed me so much as the impact," he recalls. "Like a car, but so incredibly focused." After the initial gore, the bull released Marty's buttock and lowered his head. For anyone who knows anything about bull behavior, this was a worrisome sign, an indication that the assault was merely half over. Future medical investigation would show that the bull's horn slipped slightly out of the hole newly torn into Monty's gluteus before the animal jerked his head up. The impact from the two blows lifted Monty, and then turned him a full 360 degrees, leaving him facing down the street, but now looking from a vantage point of his back.

Victorious and still being propelled by the energy of the run, the bull moved on. Monty reached down and felt between his legs and pulled his hand back in front of his face, and then did it again. He thought: Isn't it interesting that there is no blood? before the crowd surged around him and gently pushed him back onto the stone. Even after he was loaded into the ambulance, flat on his belly with his limbs spread wide like a skydiver's, he assured the paramedics, "It's not so bad."

"No, Señor," one responded. "It is bad."

The wound was shaped like a "Y," eight inches deep from the first gore and four inches deep from the second. Luckily, due to the angle, the horn had missed all of Monty's vitals -- or, as he told his mother two days later when she called the hospital, "It's all butt, Ma." Ten days passed before he was released.


Getting to know Monty is no trick. He is open and enthusiastic and friendly, mostly because that's just how he is, but also because he has absolutely no regrets. There are people who have mocked him, and others are certain to make fun of him in the future. But he doesn't understand them, and so he doesn't expect them to try hard to comprehend him, either.

He has other projects in the works, though none quite as hazardous as inviting a bull to chase him. He is in the middle of driving all of the country's interstate highways with Ernest, now fourteen. People probably don't get the appeal of driving sixteen hours a day on long straight roads, either, but that's their problem.

For the moment, though, the highways will have to wait. Sitting for long periods of time, even in leather bucket seats, is simply out of the question. In fact, Monty's main concern now is short-term comfort.

He arranges his new assembly of pills on the coffee table in his suburban Littleton ranch house. There is the maximum-strength, horse-pill-sized ibuprofen, prescribed to cut the swelling. The Flexeril is a powerful muscle relaxant, which helps the compensating muscles loosen up and settle down. The Percoset and Vicodin are strictly for pain (although the latter bothers Monty's stomach, so he doesn't use it much). Valium calms his head; the ointment prevents infection and keeps the wound moist. He blows air into a blue doughnut seat pad and places it on the La-Z-Boy recliner before lowering himself down into it.

He lights a cigarette. "I stopped smoking the first of the year so I wouldn't get a horn up the ass for lack of oxygen," he explains. "But I started again in the hospital. It really does help the pain."


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